Monday, January 17, 2022

Wargame Design: "Invincible" Units

I think we have all seen those "invincible" units.  The ones that can out-shoot, out-melee, or simply out-last anything else on the table.  The are frequently a powerful beat stick that your opponent can use to hammer your army into dust, where your lowly troops barely have a chance!  I had been on the receiving end of those "Deathstar" units on many occasions, and I did not like the chunky, meat paste it made of my troops.  I quickly started to think that if a lowly conscript did not have at least the ghost of a chance at defeating it with a crazy luck or massively out-numbering than it was "unfun".  

If you read many of my rules, you will find the ability to make "Invincible" Units that can not be killed.  You could use combinations of traits, stat lines and command points to buff units to invincible status, especially against other non-"invincible" units.

Now, let's fast forward to my most recently published book, Wars of the Republic.  Roman Legionary troops can go into a formation called Legion.  This formation gives them powerful armor bonuses in exchange for some reduced mobility. However, the concern is that the Armor rating for this formation can make them essentially immune to other unit's attacks!  This frequently came up in play testing, and was a concern for some of the play testers.   

Oh no!  It looks like I have fallen into the trap and designed "Invincible" units!  

Perfect Balance

The idea of perfect balance is that any unit of a given points cost can perform just as well as any other selection of the same points. Quality can off-set quantity, damage output can be off set by damage resistance, speed can be off set by control, etc. Essentially, perfect balance would be that two players could choose any options they want and their abilities would off set enough that the game would still be completely fair and even. Only the skill of the two players would impact the outcome.  

It is a common belief that balance can be created using a simple formula, where various values can be input and the output is a given unit's effectiveness.  This can then be turned into a Points system, so theoretically any given point was worth X amount of effectiveness.  It can be really easy to build a number of spreadsheets and statistical models that would allow you to create the "true" points value of a model.    

"Invincible" units would seem to be anathema to this idea of Perfect Balance, as some units were wildly out of sync with other units capabilities on a point by point basis.  X points of a Buffed Mounted Unit in Heavy Armor should always beat Y number of less buffed units in combat.  Y would never have a chance to even scratch them! 

The problem is, Perfect Balance is a Myth.  It is a unicorn.  There will always be unbalanced units.  

The Unicorn 
Perfect Balance is impossible for a couple of reasons: 

1. Games have a lot of variables that can not be accounted for

I have a two level hill that has a radius of 6 inches, but Billy has a two-level hill that has a radius of 6.5 inches.   This is a variable that a designer can not account for unless they put rigid requirements on terrain that players can use.  Terrain is the most common example, but there are a ton of others such as table size, accuracy of measuring tools, consistency of RNG, model variability, and many, many more.  

Even if the game strictly confines the game into a set series of known quantities by enforcing standardization such as all terrain must be X, or this particular SKU, or use only casino dice, or all bases area  cylinder, etc.  That is not going to ensure "perfect balance", but it does reduce the noise of variability.  

2. Players are all different! 

Sorry, some people are better at calculating distance on sight, others can do probability calculations, others can count cards.  Therefore, we have another factor that creates variability.  Game designers can not account for Player skill mismatches.  

Therefore, "perfect balance" is a myth and as game designers we should not get hung up on the issue. 

The Invincible Unit
On its surface, a unit in Restless Hordes (and similar generic games I have builtcould effectively be invincible to other units.  In fact, it was intended that players could do so!  The same with the Legion rules in Wars of the Republic.  These were not put in by accident, they were not a mistake.  They were intentional choices.  

Why would I do something like that?  WHY!!!!!!!!!

How a player structures their army is a strategic choice.  It is one they make outside of the game, and it will impact how they decide to play on the table.  A player has to choose if it makes sense to create a "invincible" unit at the expense of the rest of his army.  For every point spent to "buff" your invincible unit, less points for the rest of your army.  This makes them strategically vulnerable to being out-maneuvered, out-activated, and not able to cover objectives.  

Invincible units face hard tactical choices, for both players IF the game itself has tactical choices built in.  As the player of the 'Invincible" unit you have to decide where is the best place to apply said unit for maximum effect?  For the opponent, you have to decide how you are going to counter these difficult to face units.  

For example, in Wars of the Republic playtesting the following "solutions" were found to the Legion formation.  The easiest was to feed them a Light Infantry unit to tie them up so they couldn't then maneuver or get to a more impactful element of the army.  The other was to never attack them head-on, or force them to come to you where their unit lost the benefit of the formation.  Thirdly, you would just use support units to overwhelm them where a single unit could not even hurt them.  All of these options required the opponent to think of how to "solve" for the legion formation and that makes choices.  For the Legion player, they had to think about how they wanted to engage and where for the proper match-ups.  

3. Resource Management

In many of my games, you can use Command Points to buff/de-buff/trigger effects.  The Invincible unit forces all players to decide if they need to buff/de-buff that unit or that Unit's opponent.  Like points, any advantage given by Arete Points, Commander's Gaze, or similar command points means that those points are not available elsewhere.  Those re-rolls or buffs are often the "lynch pin" of success and having to think about where to use them to either make sure a unit is invincible or not is a key decision point.  

Most games have more scenarios than simply killing your enemy.  In scenarios where killing the enemy is less than optimal, such optimized units will fail to deliver on their promise.  Instead, units that apply to the scenario matter much more.  These "invincible" units will not be worth their cost any more.  

For example, if the mission is to get more units within X distance of an objective having only 1 "Invincible" unit with a couple of support units will be much less effective than having a shed load of medium skill, mobile units.  Therefore, the scenario options and the need to build for a variety of options means that "invincible" units become a gamble.  

5. Games are not played on Paper

While playtesting Men of Bronze, Warband infantry were proving to be much more effective than Peltasts.  On paper, Peltasts were better!  They had better stats, missile abilities, and better special rules.  However, they were getting rolled over and removed from the game frequently.  The Warband infantry was not only staying on the table, but helping to win the games!  

How was this possible?  

Well, the special rules and better stats were leading to players using the Peltasts much more aggressively.  They often went in front of the Phalanx to act as a screen and trying to use their missile weapons.  This would cause minor injury, but the counter-attack would frequently catch or rout them.  Meanwhile, the Warband Infantry was held back to either act as a support unit, flank unit, or scurrying across the board for objectives once the main engagement occurred.  People were using Warband Infantry in a different role, and using them more effectively.  This lead to Warband infantry getting costed 6 points, to the Peltasts 4; and led to a lot of pushback from players in the larger community.  Ultimately, I made the change to make them all equal points in the FAQ.  

Therefore, one of the worst units in the game "on paper", became the most valuable.  

Final Thoughts
The ability to build an "Invincible" unit is not an inherent flaw in a game.  The designers just need to build methods and ways to make sure that the "invincible" units are not auto-win units.  Just because a unit can ROFL stomp any other unit on the table does not mean that the game is lost.  If a designer builds in downsides such as scenarios, strategic penalties, and tactical elements that can be used to negate that units advantages, the game is winnable.    

As a player, it can be really frustrating to meet-up with these types of units.  However, it is also very satisfying when you still manage to beat them!  A solid game will allow a player to choose to make an "Invincible" unit, but will not guarantees the player of that unit an auto-win.  

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  1. I love the analysis, especially looking at how to beat legions in your game. A designers analysis of how to dismantle his creation is always interesting.

    1. There was a streak during playtesting where the Romans and their Legion were consistently losing to their non-legion foes. I considered changing how the rules worked, but decided to dig a bit deeper into the results. I am glad I did because I learned a lot about how the game was functioning on the table as opposed to on paper. Ultimately, I feel like I made the right choices for the Legion rules in order to give Romans a proper, and unique feel.

    2. I think there's a huge lesson there: too short of a time playtesting, just bumping stats when things don't play the way a designer envisioned, can result in the loss of tactics and play style in the end. Time spent playtesting is time well spent.

    3. Indeed. I have an old post that outlines some of my process for Playtesting.